Devin Townsend has forayed into his first crowd funding campaign with Casualties of Cool, succeeding far beyond his initial scope and ending up at 546% at the time of release on May 14. The campaign featured tons of cool packages ranging from a digital download of the album to personal birthday songs to fans and an autographed guitar. Each pledger also received intimate video updates as the process endured. The album was originally slated to be a Devin Townsend Project release, but he decided to forgo that idea and make it a project unto itself. Musically, this material isn’t much of a departure from the subtleties of Ki and Ghost and wouldn’t be too strange billed under the DTP moniker, but the Devin we’ve come to know and love always has a reason for doing things, and perhaps the heady concept inherent here sheds some light on his decision.
Casualties of Cool follows a traveler that is summoned to a sentient planet by way of a beautiful woman’s voice. The planet feeds on his fear, and his only source of comfort is an old radio. He confronts this fear, freeing a woman trapped inside the planet and thereby freeing his own soul. From this description, the classic and desolate feel of the music, and the phrase “And so it goes” in the song ‘Flight’, one is reminded of the alien planet Tralfamadore from Kurt Vonnegut’s lauded classic novel Slaughterhouse Five, and the mind control the Tralfamadorians used on the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. The music perfectly paints the story, each gray and reverb drenched note projecting a desolate and comforting feeling onto the listener like a cool blanket on a warm summer night.
The album features a notable cast of musicians, with Che Dorval from Ki fame playing the role of the seductive voice the sentient planet uses to lure the traveller. Her voice blends seamlessly with Devin’s, their harmonies intertwining and flowing like an ethereal wind. Morgan Agren’s (Mats/Morgan, Fredrik Thordendal’s Special Defects, Kaipa) role is surprisingly subtle here, softly brushing away at his drums and the occasional world instrument with hypnotic country rock pulses, perfectly locking in with the bass which we can only assume is performed by Devin. Agren flexes his polyrhythmic muscles a bit during ‘Pier’, banging out totally different rhythms on undefined worldly instruments in either speaker. Kat Epple, of Ghost fame, plays the flute and woodwinds. Jørgen Munkeby (Shining) handles the occasional jazzy saxophone bit, being most prominent on ‘Moon’. Guest spots on albums have a tendency to stick out, more like a move to placate egos and have a flashy sticker on the front of the disc rather than something to complement the music. Luckily this eccentric roster of contributors is never too obvious, and each musician performs their parts with grace and a clear purpose to suit what the music requires.
Sonically there are many similarities to Ki and Ghost: The breathy vocals, the perfectly decayed reverb, the delicate stereo vocal production, and the crystal clear and natural sounding instruments. What’s different here is the total lack of imposition or demand on the listener; so much so that it may turn into mere background music if one isn’t careful, and this creates a strange juxtaposition. Devin’s intention was to create another quiet album, and he succeeded in spades. However, the trifecta of ‘Pier’, ‘Ether’, and ‘Hejda’ tends to drift, almost like an intermission, which seems unnecessary on an album that is so easy on the mind and ears. ‘The Bridge’ is the only exception here, which cascades with classic melodic Townsend flare, bathed in balconies of choirs. He later explained in an update video that this song was a late addition, and he thought it a good ending to show the traveler conquering his fear. Whatever the case, it is arguably the standout track, and the one most sure to whet the appetites of those who fiend for his signature bombastic flare.
Devin is the consummate artist, and seems insistent on removing himself further and further away from what people commonly know him for. The bulk of his career has been dominated by screams and grandiosity, which enables him to tour and pay his bills by some weird turning of the tide in the heavy music world. Naturally, projects like Ki, Ghost, and Casualties of Cool give him an outlet to embrace the quiet. Devin has always had ambient projects like The Hummer, but never with this scope, attention to detail, and complexity in subtle layers. This album would best be ingested on a warm and breezy night, a calm and rainy day, or in any non-distracting environment. If given the attention it deserves, it will immerse the listener in a completely different world; a distant, desolate, Western landscape with haunted Johnny Cash songs as the soundtrack. This album sounds like the concept reads, which is a difficult feat. Moments like the end of ‘Deathscope’ make you feel like you ARE trapped on a desolate planet with just a woman’s voice haunting you. Yet another album in Devin’s repertoire sure to piss off the Strapping Young Lad elite, and a personal statement from a remarkable artist with an uncanny ability to reinvent himself.